Israel-Palestinian breakthrough could change Iran equation

There's little indication of how much sanctions will be able to achieve, let alone any unintended consequences they may have.

Amman talks with Blair_311 (photo credit: Reuters)
Amman talks with Blair_311
(photo credit: Reuters)
The most recent round of missile tests and saber-rattling around the Strait of Hormuz strongly suggest that sanctions now targeting Iran’s central bank and crude exports are really starting to hurt for a change. With the Rial sharply plummeting against the greenback and parliamentary elections in Iran looming into view, some also think it possible that economics may in due course call Tehran’s bluff and reignite the 2009 mass protests.
Still, there is little indication of just how much these sanctions will be able to achieve in the longer term, let alone any unintended consequences they may have, and the importance of stable energy markets as the US moves into election year is reason enough for the international community not to hold its breath.
The other elements comprising the current response cocktail, including diplomatic isolation, cyber and psychological warfare, sabotage and a credible strike option have also been pushing Iran steadily toward armed confrontation, an outcome most would rather avoid.
Yet amid all this, there is another often disregarded “soft measure” that in tandem with the rest may well prove to be that elusive game-changer, but only the Israelis and Palestinians can bring this about together: mustering the political will to resolve their conflict, thereby depleting one of the current Iranian regime’s last reserves of ideological legitimacy.
In Israel, the military-security complex still massively overrides every other public sector. Although the principle wars in the first few decades of Israel’s existence were fought on existential grounds, today, demagoguery from certain quarters notwithstanding, Israel’s existence as polity and nation reconstituted has become a recognized fact.
More importantly, like the unassailable fact of the Palestinian people’s existence, historical dialectics will not argue it away.
ISRAEL’S REGIONAL military superiority is not in question; what should be is the entrenched perception that its external threats remain conclusively military in character. The 2006 war in Lebanon – what some argue to be in effect an Iranian-Israeli war – and Operation Cast Lead consecutively exposed the inadequacies of military superiority in decisively achieving political, or even military, objectives. On the contrary, the waning threat of direct conventional military warfare is matched by the threat of warfare increasingly waged on multiple fronts, of which the military is often only an ancillary component.
This includes at least three issues of consequence, the first two demonstrably drawing strength from the third: the campaign of political delegitimization being directed against Israel from countries even across the familiar West; a potentially nuclear Iran and its network of proxies; and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Israel’s political and security brass generally contend that its multiple conflict theatres should be disaggregated and dealt with on this same basis; many also argue that a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will not lead to a more stable Middle East precisely because it is not the wellspring of the region’s sundry problems. While these are by and large analytically astute premises, an opportunity of scale is also in the offing that should be seriously studied.
The political, military, economic, demographic and moral costs of maintaining the status quo in the West Bank will inexorably hyperinflate over time, almost as surely as the occasional lull will be interpreted as vindication for “managing the conflict” instead. On the other hand, a sustainable package of solutions to Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians, combined with the political will and daring to implement it, clearly carries a profound intrinsic value that will far outstrip the cost in the longer run.
And then there is that powerful but often dismissed corollary, namely a reversal of political delegitimization which, in the current zero-sum state of affairs viewed from Tehran, would mean delegitimizing the Iran-led alliance and further weakening and isolating its component parts.
Unlike its non-state allies, the Islamic Republic of Iran commands a highly restive demographic depth that could still respond surprisingly well to such a scenario, particularly in conjunction with the simmering domestic legitimacy crisis. Resolution would also destabilize Hezbollah by diluting its reason for being and reinvigorating the disarmament debate in Lebanon, a sticking point no less potent than Israel’s violation of its airspace, the status of Palestinian refugees and Hariri’s assassination.
NOT LEAST, this would undermine links to rejectionist Palestinian factions for which Shi’ite Iranian patronage offered compelling, if conspicuously opportunistic, political tailwind. To add to all this, the blowback from Iranian support in quelling Assad’s opponents (including the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas’ mother organization) has generated a parallel momentum which, if used right, could see this reverse form of delegitimization going very far indeed as part of a combined response to a nuclearizing Iran.
The Iranian leadership is incurring considerable cost and risk in its nuclear drive for a far from otherworldly endgame: to secure primacy and leverage in the Persian gulf and the wider region (and parity vis-à-vis Israel); interdict unremitting foreign meddling; guarantee full control over its natural resources; preserve the present regime; and propagate its revolutionary ideals to bring about like-minded though preferably deferent allies. The long history of foreign interference in Iranian affairs sheds crucial light on its current posturing.
To this end, threatening Israel serves a totemic and hence strategic purpose by amplifying Iran’s desired stature as the Islamic world’s preferred standard bearer.
This however only works so long as the Israeli “threat” exists and there are allies to rally.
Iranian bellicosity toward Israel is therefore clearly not a function of the latter’s ongoing “occupation” of the Palestinians; on the contrary, a successful two-state solution would severely impair its current posturing, interests and rhetoric.
Of course, delegitimization by denying the Iran-led alliance the single most potent rallying banner in the pan- Islamic world will not offer any standalone solution to its nuclear ambitions.
Indeed, some have also pointed out that the Gulf Cooperation Council countries led by Saudi Arabia do not even require a development of this significance to move towards openly countering Iran, whatever form that may assume.
Still, in concert with the current palette of measures and Iran’s own thickening economic malaise, leadership rifts and dwindling domestic legitimacy, an Israeli-Palestinian breakthrough would push Iran’s elite-grassroots compact closer to fracture point against the backdrop of the Arab uprisings, further isolate the Iranian regime in its own neighborhood, consolidate regional if not international consensus against a nuclearizing Iran and, only if diplomacy fails, smooth the way toward neutralization of its non-civilian nuclear facilities, though this latter could also work in the regime’s favor by uniting domestic support.
Israel will unfortunately find it increasingly difficult to both have its cake and eat it too. The numinous pull of retaining east Jerusalem, “Judea and Samaria,” regarded primarily but not exclusively by the religious Right as a non-negotiable spiritual injunction, may yet carry the day by justifying an indefinite, low-intensity conflict over peace. This is likewise conceivable if the unconditionally “special relationship” with the US continues to palliate Israel’s apprehensions on the global stage. But if Israelis themselves believe that longer-term existential security and a Jewish democratic identity take priority, the choice is obvious.
As tensions continue to rise, a willed breakthrough on the home front may just be what it takes for a game-changer on that other major front.
The writer is a Middle East observer.